People aspiring to the perfect life by striving to be the best and achieve the most in all they do may be in the minority according to new research from an international team of psychologists.

The paper, published in Psychological Science, tested the ‘maximisation principle’ – the extent to which people aspire to the highest possible level of something good, if all practical constraints are removed.

Across two related studies, the team recruited over 8,000 participants from 27 countries, from Spain to South Korea, Indonesia to Ireland, to test what really mattered to people when it came to their ideals and aspirations.

Participants rated a series of questions about their ideal individual characteristics, including intelligence, health, freedom, pleasure, self-esteem and happiness. The same scale was used to ask individuals to rate their ideal “utopian” society, including its morality, equality of opportunity, technological advancement and freedom.

Aspiring to be moderate

They found that most people’s sense of perfection is more modest than might be assumed. Although most people want to be happy, free and healthy, they do not necessarily strive for perfection on these things. For instance their perfect life has some sadness alongside happiness. On average, in fact, people aspired to only about 70 – 80% of a ‘good thing’.

For the researchers, these results may help explain behaviours and individual characteristics which might seem self-defeating, such as not engaging in behaviours to improve health. ‘Aspiring to be moderate’ could also be an outlook which is increasingly adaptive to modern society, and a key factor in encouraging more sustainable behaviours that put less pressure on natural resources. By contrast, they suggest, ‘maximisers’ who are always pushing for perfection may be out of touch with what most people want.

Driving policy debates

More significantly, the team behind the study argue that science and policy might be driven by “maximisers” in the belief that they are pursuing ideals that are objectively desirable, however these may not serve the aspirations of their community. For example, public resources are invested in technologies to extend life, even to the extent of finding ways to reverse aging and living forever, but the research suggests that most people do not aspire to live overly long.

Co-author, Dr Paul Bain, from our Department of Psychology explained: “We’re often told we have unlimited wants and that we should strive for self-betterment in all that we do. But we can’t satisfy every want, suggesting we should be constantly frustrated, always compromising. Whilst this may be true for some people, our research suggests that these people are in the minority.

“Instead, our research suggests that most people have limited wants. For the majority of us, ‘the perfect, or ideal world’ is fairly modest. We don’t aspire to be the richest or smartest in the world, and not even necessarily to have perfect health.”

Lead author, Dr Matthew Horney of the University of Queensland added: “Our research shows that people’s sense of perfection is surprisingly modest. People want positive qualities, such as health and happiness, but not to the exclusion of other darker experiences.

“Interestingly, ratings of perfection were more modest in countries that had traditions of Buddhism and Confucianism. This makes sense: these Eastern philosophies and religions tend to place more emphasis on the notion that seemingly contradictory forces coexist in a complementary, interrelated state, such that one cannot exist without the other. Our research suggest that people have much more complex, blended notions of perfection, ones that embrace both light and dark.”